Chapter One: Something After Cereal

Cereal. When I was a little girl it was the ultimate source of comfort. Nothing could match its delectable, sugary taste as it swam in the milk. I could go through bowls of the stuff, finishing off a box in a matter of days.

Not that I even had time or the mental strength to enjoy it anymore.

"Get up, Elizabeth!"

Pure black met a blinding white light as my mother threw open my door, singing loudly and thrusting my curtains back. She loved and lived to do that, I swear. And it was always the same song, too.

I groaned under my covers. If I didn't fake sickness or die right there I'd be stuck in another lousy day of annoying teachers and cruel peers with nothing better to do than treat me like the dirt on the dried gum on the souls of their shoes.

"Mom, I'm sick," I said, adding an airy cough for effects.

She sighed, obviously not buying my sob story. "Up, Elizabeth. You know education is important."

Yeah, and so is staying alive.

With a roll of the eyes and a "Here we go again" escaping my lips, I exposed my fuzzy pajama pants to the chill of the morning air, ready to toss something on. I wasn't one to plan a day ahead or even wonder if the color combination was seasonably fashionable. No, I wore what I wanted and didn't care much what anyone thought. Besides, even if I did, who would be impressed? More than likely they'd accuse me of being a poser, trying to be cool when everyone knew I was at the bottom of the chain.

Yes, my name is Elizabeth Parla, and I am a certified freak. I don't even qualify as an outsider, a geek, a nerd, or a weirdo. It's been this way since before I was out of my baby shoes.

Once downstairs I noticed that my mom had already set out a cereal bowl and box of Cheerios on the table. She was busily cleaning dishes and watching the news on our kitchen TV, which meant minimal talk was allowed (why anyone would want to hear about the latest shooting while eating was beyond me). At the very least my middle school age sister wouldn't be up for another half hour, and I wouldn't have to listen to her blathering about her friends and when she wanted to go to the mall to buy a new shirt or skirt or whatever. Unlike me, Cassia was quite popular, and often avoided telling people we were related. I guess I couldn't blame her.

I ate hastily, in a hurry so I could take my time in getting to school. It had snowed last night and if I wasn't careful I'd end up with a concussion because some idiot didn't salt the sidewalks well enough.

The second reason I rushed so was to avoid coming into any contact with the one person on earth I despised the most – Keith Bardsley. Keith was the most popular guy in school (or at least in the 11th grade). He had arm candy for every week of the year, and a mini posse that catered to his every whim. I'd even seen teachers adoring him in excited whispers before classes started. It made me ill. In my eyes, he was a royal jerk, flaunting his status. I hoped with all my might he'd end up a fast food employee or car mechanic after graduation.

Ironically enough, though I saw him every day at school, he also lived two houses down from mine. That meant we shared the same walking route (it's such a short walk neither of us needed cars, I'm assuming). If I wasn't careful he'd start harassing me again.

I wasn't twenty feet from my front door when that condescending voice called out to me.

"Hey, freak!"

Why couldn't the guy go play in traffic and leave us all alone?

I didn't bother to use formalities. "What do you want, Bardsley?"

"I was hoping to run into you." He bounded over to me like some kind of excited puppy. Not a good sign.

Giving a look, I attempted to ignore him by speed walking off my lawn and onto the cement, hoping I wouldn't die from my new carelessness. But, I just had to get away!

"Wait for me," Keith called, slowly but surely catching up.

Waiting for the executioner would be more tempting.

"I don't know what you want, but leave me alone! I haven't done anything to you." It was technically true. I mostly kept to myself during school hours, only answering to teachers and when absolutely necessary to defend myself.

A few moments after I said this, Keith was to my right, holding up his arms as if in surrender. "Hey, I just want to talk to you."

About what, how many times you're going to make a snide remark about my appearance, or pull some prank resulting in my humiliation?

Cautiously, I left an open-ended question. "And that would be?"

He put his hands behind his back in a juvenile manner, tilting his head. "Oh, just a little favor I need."

He had to be kidding. I was the last person to ask a favor from. We were undeclared enemies. You don't ask someone trying to kill you if they could baby-sit or water your plants, right?

"I wouldn't help you save the planet from blood lusty aliens," I seethed, clutching my backpack harder and keeping my eyes straight ahead, "so whatever it is, you're on your own."

"See, that's the thing. You're the only person I can ask."

I paused to think, as I couldn't help but wonder what it was that only I could assist with. Could I possibly make up an excuse, any excuse, and get away with it?

"I won't do it. Not even if you paid me. I have to wash my hair, or whatever."

He pouted, which might've worked in convincing me if I was one of his love sick groupies. "But only you can do this for me. It's real important. And we're neighbors."

I pointed an accusing finger. "Don't play that card. Just because your mom knows my mom-"

"Think I'd ask you if I had a choice, freak? Don't flatter yourself," the moronic jerk said.

Now I was really mad. "Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. I hate you." His words really hurt. "Freak" was like the "f-word" to me, and it cut deeper than a murderer's hatchet. I wanted to cry, and was just about there. In my anger I walked faster, willing my legs to pump harder until they burned, my breathing becoming harsh and tired.

Perhaps noticing my distress, Keith called out, "I'll do anything!"

This caused me to pause. Anything? As in, slave for a week, do my homework for a month, that sort of thing? No. No. I would not give in.

"I'll be putty in your hands, freak!"

I stopped fully and turned around. "You call me that, and think I'll drop everything and say 'OK, let's go'? I'd rather have my face eaten off by lions."

"OK, Elizabeth," he corrected, forming a Cheshire grin. "Name your bargain and I'll do whatever you want."

With a sudden idea I walked to where he was, scowling and looking very determined. "If you promise to leave me alone, and that includes everyone you know, for the rest of the school year, I will consider doing this for you."

If he wasn't going to drop the subject until I complied, I could at least get something really beneficial out of it. It was January, so I'd be home free until June.

"Deal." Keith held out his hand.

But I wasn't done yet. He still hadn't told me what I'd be doing.

"Wait." I held out a hand, rejecting the hand shake. "First, I need to know what you want me to do."

He frowned. Seemed like I'd caught him in his own game. "Well…"

"Ah-ha! I knew you were up to something evil! In what way did you want to humiliate me? Because I can tell you right now, in no way will I-"

"If I tell you, you'd better not laugh," Keith interrupted, taking a deep breath. "I need help maintaining my social status in school."

I laughed, of course. When I'd finally calmed down, I said, "And the world rejoices. This is bad how?"

Keith groaned in frustration before speaking again. "You don't get it. I've been challenged, and I can't back down."


"Yeah, by Rob. You know him, don't you?"

How could I not? Robert Gardner was the second most popular guy in school. His stunning good looks hid a mean interior, and though a magnet for the ladies broke their hearts more than a bull in a chandelier shop ever could.

I sighed. "Yeah, I know him."

Having shared this, number one boy folded his arms, resting one foot on the ground. "Well... you see, he sort of challenged me for my top spot as most popular."

Of all the stupid things...

I raised my eyebrows. "And how do I fit in?"

He spoke slowly, probably choosing his words carefully. "You see, it's basically a contest on who can woo a lady the best. You know, what us popular guys live for."

Guys are so egotistical. I'm surprised none have choked on their own ego. This is why I really can't stand them.

"You want to woo me?" It almost made me want to vomit right there. "I will not be wooed by anyone!"

"Look fr-… Elizabeth… I already said I wouldn't pick on you for the rest of the school year if you did it. What, don't you believe me?"

Obviously he wasn't too familiar with feminine pride. "I would rather get insulted and teased, rather than degrade myself to be some air-headed floozie!"

I had never been in love (or even had a small crush) in my whole life. Guys had never ever looked my way, for as long as I could remember. It was such an empty spot I never even dwelled on the fact that it was pathetic. So I found it insulting that the only time this would technically happen, it was all for sport.

I began to walk away from him again, knowing if I didn't book it we'd be really late. And how would it look if I walked in with him?

He tried to reason with me. "It's not real wooing! It's just a show. Like… a play. You like plays, right? All you have to do is pretend to really like me for a short time! And then I'll leave you alone, like you said."

It was disgusting, but as I prodded along, I realized that this was a change I shouldn't be so reluctant to take. Someday it would all be forgotten, or at least suppressed from the mind. And the nightmare would be over before I knew it.


I had finally agreed.

Keith was very pleased. "Really? You'll really do it?"

"Yes, I'll really do it," I mimicked. "As long as I don't have to do anything immoral."

"That's a matter of opinion," he teased. Ugh.

We walked side by side the remainder of the way, my mind whirling with a million different thoughts, and wondering if I'd just made the biggest mistake of my childhood.

"How exactly is this going to work?" I mean, he hadn't told me anything other than I had to basically act like one of his dozens of fangirls.

"I'll give you the details later," was all I got out of it.

What I wouldn't have given to be sitting home with my bowl of Cheerios.


Cheese. Glorious cheese. It's soft, yellow texture goes well on almost anything. And like my cereal, it is also a source of great joy.

I sat there, sandwiched between two large, chattering groups of students, eating my cheese and butter sandwich. In my free hand I clutched a book. I usually brought one along to distract myself, having nobody to talk to. Mysteries were my favorite, but every now and then I'd go for fantasy or non-fictional.

Just as the last bite had been taken, I was at a "can't put down" chapter of my book, and was about to reach for my juice box to cleanse my throat, a hand came out of nowhere and slammed itself on the cafeteria table. I flinched.

"Hey, what you reading?"

It was Keith. It can go without saying that I also shared a lunch with him. We never spoke, however, because the "populars" had their own domain at the other end of the room, separated by an invisible line that nobody dared cross. I guess I'd had a false sense of security, because he'd never bothered me at this time before.

"What do you want now, Keith?" I muttered.

"Is that any way to speak to your future boyfriend?"

I was so taken aback that I knocked over my juice box, apple juice coming out of the plastic straw in thin colored streams.

"W-what do you mean by that?" I said, almost coughing.

He sat down next to me. "I came to tell you about the terms. For a whole week, you have to act as my girlfriend."

I imagined hand holding, walking under the stars, all that mushy couple stuff, and my whole face became warm. I was either blushing or about to implode.

"You didn't say girlfriend. You just said I had to, and I quote, 'pretend to really like you'." I argued, attempting to hide my current state.

Keith counter argued with, "And if I'd told you that, you wouldn't have said yes."

"Gee, wonder why?"

But I wasn't ready to be anybody's girlfriend!

"I think I want out." I absentmindedly picked up my juice box, using my napkin to wipe up the mess.

He took the napkin from me, that annoying bother, and threw it. "Too late, freak. You agreed and it's done."

"Don't call me a freak." I raised my voice to show I was steamed, yet not loud enough to bring too much attention, or people would be talking about it for the rest of the day. "You are so full of yourself."

"It's only for a week, you wimp. And we don't even have to hang out outside of school, unless Rob or I decide to have a 'challenge activity' like going to the movies or something."

Stupid, so stupid.

"That's stupid." That was me.

"And it's a point system," Keith continued, ignoring me, "so if you like something or don't like something, you give a certain amount of points."

"How about if I just end it now and give you a -35?" This was seriously making my heart pound, and I didn't care for that feeling.

"Ha ha, very funny. Just remember if you don't cooperate you can forget about the deal. I'll talk more about this later when you aren't being so stubborn."

And with that, he walked away.

This time I really did cry, but it was controlled. Meaning I wasn't bawling, but a few tears did escape from my eyes. I wasn't ready to date; I wasn't ready for any of this. In fact, I wasn't even planning on doing any of those things for the rest of my days.

What would my parents think when they saw me and him together at any time? Would they encourage it, scorn it, tell everybody they knew that I was finally "out of my shell"?

I sniffed as I squished my brown lunch bag, throwing it into the trash and walking back to my 4th period class. This would be a long week.

Why did he choose me, anyway?